Thursday, 22 April 2021

The Family Business

   This is an exciting time for my son, Callum Angus, who has just published his first book, A Natural History of Transition. Cal is the fourth generation writer in our family. No pressure there, right Cal?

   In truth, Cal may be the best of the lot. He writes fluidly and beautifully. But what stuns me is how purposefully he has gone about his business. This is not an easy time to be a writer. Publishing houses have consolidated into fewer and fewer outlets available, and they no longer coddle their writers as they did in my parents' day. Less promotion and fewer editing services are offered. While some independent bookstores are hanging on, they face daunting competition from online booksellers like Amazon.

   As an older writer myself, perhaps the most difficult part for me has been adapting to the altered landscape. If you are unable to navigate social media, your chances of having your work seen, much less published, are negligible. Fortunately, Cal has found his own way. Like many of his generation, social media and computer technology are second nature. His path to success was infinitely different from mine.

   When I started out, manuscripts or magazine articles and essays were submitted after a laborious process of typing and retyping to get a perfect copy, then packaging them up and snail mailing them to publishers, who for the most part took anywhere from a few months to seven years to make a decision on them. Yes. Seven years. That happened to one book of mine that was eventually published, after what they called a "seven year study period." One thing I learned from that experience is the importance of finishing one work and immediately starting another. No sitting around waiting to hear that your best seller has been accepted.

   Today, everything is done online. With spell-check, voice recognition, even automatic editing in some cases, preparing a clean text is much less trouble, though there is no substitute for a good, live editor. And no mailing. Manuscripts are submitted by email in seconds. Indeed, I have fielded a request from an editor for a piece, written it and submitted it in just a matter of days for publication within a week. This feels more like reporting than literature to me.

   Cal has become expert at this and at developing contacts across the country and around the world using social media. His resume consists of an impressive list of credits, many in online publications that didn't exist when I started out, things with names like BuzzFeed, Pulpmouth, them  (wasn't that a scary movie with James Arness?) and The Millions. He has also published in the L A Review of Books and Nat. Brut, for which his short story, In Kind, was nominated for a 2019 Pushcart Prize.

   I'm sure my grandfather, a frustrated dentist in Manhattan, who translated Russian poetry out of a pure love for words, would have little idea what I am talking about here. But what he did counts in my book. He was the first writer in the family, so far as I know, seventy or eighty years ago. He immigrated from Siberia in the early twentieth century, traveling around the world at the age of sixteen and passing through Ellis Island like so many others to establish himself in America.

   I used to fear Cal's career choice, made shortly after getting his undergraduate degree. I know from personal experience how difficult it is to be a writer. It was more difficult for me than it was for my parents. Even after a certain amount of success on my part, I have learned the hard lesson that previous success comes with no guarantee that it will continue. I have known many quite successful writers, even an American Book Award winner, who had to teach their entire lives in order to make ends meet. Fewer than 5% of writers are able to make a living at it. But I believe it may be easier for Cal, for he writes in a more academic, literary style. This will make it easier for him to have an academic career, if he so chooses, along the lines that my parents had. They were both university professors of English. But this may not be Cal's choice. I believe he has an expansive world view and has already had experience working in teaching, publishing, book selling and university administration.

   As I peruse Cal's resume online, I am astonished at the number of jobs he has already had, the number of colleges where he has taught, the publications he has produced and the number of skills he has perfected, all at a much younger age than I was before publishing my first serious work.

   I no longer have any fear about his career choice. He is self-directed and capable, I truly believe, of achieving anything he sets out to do.


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